Meet Cacti violist, Anna Stromer

Photo credit: Hannah Cohen

What do a cactus, a viola, and Boston Ballet have in common? Anna Stromer.

Photo credit: Hanna Cohen

Photo credit: David Yuhico

Photo credit: Hanna Cohen

Photo credit: David Yuhico

Anna Stromer has played with an impressive line-up of musical luminaries and hot young bands, including Jared Leto’s Thirty Seconds to Mars, Wyclef Jean, The Dear Hunter, and Vitamin String Quartet. This month she returns to Boston Ballet as part of the onstage string quartet in Alexander Ekman's Cacti.

We sat down with the Boston-native to talk about how she started playing viola, her experience at Berklee College of Music, what it was like performing with Boston Ballet dancers when we debuted Cacti in 2014, and what she hopes to bring to the Boston Opera House stage as she joins us again for Kylián/Wings of Wax.

When was the first time you played the viola?
It kind of happened by accident! I was around 10 years old and my public school had the option for kids to play an instrument. We could choose from a variety of instruments. I wanted to play pretty much every other instrument besides the viola. I didn’t even know what the viola was. However, when it was my turn to pick an instrument, the only one that was left was the viola. My orchestra teacher said, “Well, why don’t you try it?” It all happened kind of randomly.

What turned that one moment of randomness into a life-long passion?
Growing up in Boston, I was exposed to a wealth of classical music. I went to many concerts at New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. I also attended many performances at Boston Ballet. When I was in high school, I realized that I really loved playing the viola. I auditioned and got accepted to a couple of youth orchestras, like the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. There’s something about playing in an orchestra that just felt absolutely wonderful. I loved the sense of community, everyone supported one another, and being in that kind of environment shaped a whole new passion for playing music. That experience furthered my interest in starting a career as a musician.

Tell us about your experience at Berklee College of Music.
After high school, I spent a year or two working odd jobs and met a lot of people in the Berklee world. I was inspired to audition for the School and was accepted! As soon as I started at Berklee, I realized that there are so many more options as a musician. I used to have one goal and it was to play in an orchestra. But Berklee opened up so many doors of possibility, especially in the realm of musical collaboration and working with artists from all over the world.

Tell us about playing in Cacti for the first time with Boston Ballet. What was it like to play on stage with the dancers?
When I was first asked to be part of Boston Ballet’s production of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, I felt like I was in a dream. I loved Boston Ballet and was always in awe of their performances. Up until that point I had never worked with dancers. I remember our first rehearsal in the studios—I don’t think I played any notes in the first hour because I was completely mesmerized. The process was fascinating. The Cacti quartet spent months together working on the music prior to practicing with the dancers. We had no idea what was going to happen but it all came together so magically.

Being on the Boston Opera House stage was definitely surreal and it was the most energized I’ve felt in any performance. The more we rehearsed, the more we felt like one with the dancers. To me, that is what Cacti is all about—it’s about the merging of the dancers and musicians, and not having that separation as there is in traditional ballet. To experience that was really quite wild.

There are moments onstage where the quartet has to watch every little movement of the dancers’ hands to know when to play. There are other times where we are improvising on our instruments and we’re just playing off the energy of some of the dancers. As musicians, we sometimes forget how our bodies are connected to our instruments. Watching the dancers reminded me that the energy in my body can fuel the sound from my instrument.

Photo credit: Gerson Eguiguren

How do you think this performance will be different now that you’ve done it before?
I think the second time is going to be a lot more natural, and even more meaningful. Ever since we did Cacti the last time, the dancers have been so wonderful to us, and we’ve all maintained a friendship over the last three years. That alone will shape our performance. We will be able to connect with them on such a deeper level. It’s going to be really exciting!

As a musician today, what do you personally feel is the value of the arts?
Art is literally the only thing that every single person can understand and relate to and have some reaction to. I think that in itself makes it the most powerful form of connecting people. It’s the one thing that everyone can agree on—that music, art, and dance, it all does something to us, it all brings something out of us. I think it is an extremely powerful tool in helping people understand one another. It’s an incredible tool for providing a lot more peace and closeness within the world today.

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director